Durham downtown booster group at turning point

jwise@newsobserver.comMarch 18, 2013 


Downtown Durham Inc. staff came up with this slogan promoting the area in 2009. Their work has transformed downtown Durham.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Last month, Downtown Durham Inc. hired Tess Mangum Ocaña to produce a Thursday-night concert series at CCB Plaza this summer.

For DDI, it was an example of sticking to its roots. Twenty years ago, when the organization had just begun, an after-work concert series was one of its first projects to revive a moribund city center.

Since then, DDI has played a leading role in bringing $1.3 billion worth of investment to the central business district. Abandoned cigarette factories have turned into thriving complexes for business and living; a new ballpark, theater and courthouse have opened, and the area is a nationally recognized mecca for “foodies.”

Now, for the first time, downtown’s biggest booster group faces a change of leadership. Bill Kalkhof, its CEO since February 1993, will retire at the end of April.

“Always leave a party while it’s a good party,” Kalkhof said. “I think I’m leaving at a good time – downtown is robust, the renaissance is going on. I’ve had a hand in that, and it’s a good time to leave.”

Whoever takes over DDI will have a tough act to follow, said City Councilman Eugene Brown.

“To a certain degree it’s like trying to follow Dean Smith.”

Mission’s still relevant

Twenty years is “a righteous long time,” said Dan Ellison, an attorney who bought a former restaurant building on Chapel Hill Street in 1997 and turned it into an office for himself and low-cost studio space for artists.

“Now that downtown is this other animal, what’s the role of DDI?” Ellison said when Kalkhof announced his retirement last December. “How will they ... sort of revaluate that role?”

But DDI board Chairman Tucker Bartlett believes the role will remain much as it has been. The organization’s stated mission, according to its website ( bit.ly/12FZlrw), is to “create an environment for private development” downtown, with five “main project areas: economic development, parking, appearance, safety, promotion.”

“We think that mission is still relevant,” said Bartlett, executive vice president at Self-Help Ventures Fund. “We love what has happened downtown under Bill’s leadership, but we’re not complacent and don’t think anybody should be.”

DDI is a nonprofit corporation that the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, the city and a number of business people created in May 1992. It’s funded by private donations and annual city and county appropriations – $148,000 and $140,000 respectively for the current fiscal year.

“We have a contractual relationship with DDI that says, ‘Here’s what we want you to do,’” City Manager Tom Bonfield said. The “main components” of that are attending to cleanliness and safety, special events, marketing “and then some just general economic-development consulting.”

‘Going to be different’

Bartlett said it’s particularly “exciting” that a lot of the current interest in downtown Durham investment is coming from outside the city.

A Maryland firm bought West Village last year and plans to add apartments there. A Memphis developer is replacing a decrepit Chapel Hill Street motel with student apartments. A Colorado company plans a 26-story mixed-use building at the former Woolworth’s site. And hoteliers from Kentucky are converting the 17-story Hill (CCB/SunTrust) Building into a luxury hotel and art museum.

“It’s going to be different,” said former City Councilman Farad Ali, a vice president at the N.C. Minority Economic Development Institute. The institute is headquartered in the 1921 Mechanics and Farmers Bank building on Parrish Street, once the city’s “Black Wall Street,” in the heart of Durham’s National Register historic business district.

“It’s not just Downtown Durham Inc. now,” Ali said. “You’re got a lot more partners now that have investment in downtown Durham, and while DDI is the cheerleader, the players – some are the same and some have changed.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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